Kjerulf, Alex

Alex Kjerulf jumping and clicking his heels Alex Kjerulf is known as the Chief Happiness Officer and is the world's leading expert on happiness at work. He is a speaker, consultant, and author, presenting and conducting workshops on happiness at work at businesses and conferences all over the world. His previous clients include companies like Hilton, DaimlerChrysler, and IBM. Alex has a masters degree in computer science from the University of Southern Denmark, and was a co-founder of Enterprise Systems—a truly happy IT company. Alex's clients appreciate his unlimited energy, his dedication to happiness at work, and his ability to keep his message simple, practical, and fun. Alex is the author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life, and Kick Butt at Work.

Erik unfortunately conducted the interview with Alex by phone, as he would much rather have visited Alex in Copenhagen, Denmark.

[Bio adapted from his website—SD]

Buy the book, Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life, and Kick Butt at Work

tompeters.com asks …

I’m speaking with Alex Kjerulf, author of Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life, and Kick Butt at Work. Alex, what is happiness?

AK: That’s a big question. I can’t give you the answer. Philosophers have been working on this. Scientists and psychologists are working on it. It seems like such a simple question, yet nobody has the answer.

However, we do know a lot about what tends to make us happy and what tends to make us unhappy. If you ask me, that is a far more interesting question, because if you know that, you can do something about it.

Why is it important for us to know what makes us happy?

AK: Ah, the why question. I love it! The reason happiness is so important is because it’s the purpose of our lives. We are here on the planet to be happy. It’s not just me saying this. The Dalai Lama, Socrates, and Plato all say the very same thing. We are on this planet to be happy. It’s the very reason for our existence.

I’m not yet convinced of that. Why is it so difficult to achieve happiness?

AK: According to the Western, Protestant work ethic, which colors the way we approach work, life is tough. Work is tough. It’s supposed to be. But suffering is good, because it purifies the soul. You will get your reward when you die and go to heaven.

However, there are differing opinions on this. The Greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived in Greece in 250 B.C., said that everything you need to be happy is actually easy to get. All you need, according to Epicurus, is friends, enough to eat, a place to sleep, and time to think about life. If you have those four things in your life, you have everything you need to be happy. I’m with Epicurus on this one.

That speaks to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; as long as you have food and shelter, you move on to satisfying other needs.

AK: Exactly. Yet in most Western societies today, we have become really good at making ourselves unhappy by never being satisfied. We may have enough to eat, a place to sleep, friends, and time to think about life. But we’re not satisfied because we want a bigger house, a faster car, more interesting friends, whatever. We’re very good at reaching for the next thing instead of being happy with what we already have.

In my experience, one doesn’t talk about happiness at work. Nobody cares about your happiness; it’s all about productivity. You seem to believe that we’re moving into an age where people are going to consciously think more about happiness at work. Why?

AK: I think we’re seeing this a lot right now. A lot of the young people coming out of college today and taking their first jobs will not be satisfied with just any job. They want a job that will challenge them, that will let them grow professionally and personally. They are not satisfied, as people were 50 years ago, with saying, “I don’t care what job I get, as long as it pays okay.” That is certainly one driver, the fact that young people today are looking for happiness at work.

Another very important driver is that as work changes, as work becomes less about manufacturing and repeatable processes, and more about innovation, teamwork, communication, and customer service, companies are finding that they need happy employees.

Studies have proven that happy employees are more innovative. They communicate better. They’re better collaborators. Happy employees make for happy customers.

I saw a Harvard Business Review case study by Theresa Amabile where she had people record good moments at work, how they felt, and what had prompted those moments to happen. There seems to be some sort of afterglow.

I must admit that when I first started your book, I thought, “I need some proof.” I’m one of those guys. There does seem to be some proof.

AK: There are plenty of studies. And most studies that have looked at this found that there is a positive correlation between happy employees and the bottom line.

Other than your book, I don’t see a lot of people out there in the business world talking about this. You’ve got Martin Seligman and Learned Optimism. I notice that you’re not a big fan of Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, yet that seems to be the grandfather of this idea.

AK: Yes. Flow speaks to pleasurable, enjoyable experiences at work, which is certainly important and a part of it. But I think happiness at work definitely goes beyond that.

Most importantly, businesses do not have to choose between making people happy and the bottom line. It’s not a case of either/or. It’s a case of both/and. Especially today, if you’re in a business where you need to be innovative, you need good customer service, and you need to communicate well, then you need happy people. It’s that simple.

Right. But not everybody is happy.

AK: Yes, that’s true.

We can all say, “Yes, I’d like to be happy,” but for some reason, in as much as there’s a song about accentuating the positive, our blasted minds seem to always want to accentuate the negative. It seems such an enormous hurdle to overcome. How do we begin to do that?

AK: It’s actually not that difficult. The point that I make again and again when I speak to business leaders is that happiness at work is simple; it’s not rocket science. The things you need to do are very simple. However, it’s something you need to focus on every single day. It’s not like you can create happiness at work and then lean back and say, “Whoa, we’re happy. We can forget all about it.” That’s not the way it works. It takes a commitment to continually making people happy.

It’s true that not everybody is happy. And it’s definitely true that at any given company, not everybody can be happy. Some people just won’t fit into the culture or the workflow. It’s a matter of finding out, “Do we have some employees who will never be happy in our company?” Fire those people. Ultimately, if they’re unhappy at work, they will make their coworkers unhappy. They will not produce the best results, and they will drag that whole department down.

I’ve heard people say that if you want upbeat, happy people in your place of work, ask them when they come in for an interview, “Are you a happy person?”

AK: If you have any negative people, find them and do something about it. But also focus on the mood in the company. Let me give you an example. When you have a department meeting, what do you talk about? Do you always talk about the problems, the negative cases, the angry customers and fixing the problems? Or do you also spend time in your meetings talking about what goes right, who did something really cool, who had a great idea, which coworker helped which other coworker?

The mood in many companies is very negative. Almost all discussions are focused around what is wrong. That’s just not a good idea. You can take any positive person, put them inside a culture like that, and they will become negative from the relentless peer pressure.

Humans, innately, are problem solvers. So when we come together, we want to solve a problem. Problems, by definition, are negative.

AK: Absolutely. I’m not saying that we should ignore the problems. But let’s say things in a business are going 80 percent fine and 20 percent badly. Why should we spend all our time talking about the 20 percent? We can learn just as much talking about the 80 percent that are going well and finding out how we can do more of that.

That’s a big mind shift for anyone in the workplace.

AK: It’s huge. What’s interesting is that you can make this shift with a few simple practices. It’s actually very easy. You can, for instance, start your department meetings with what has gone right in the week up to the meeting, instead of just talking about the problems. Let every employee in the meeting mention briefly something he’s been proud of doing in the last week. You can then go on to talk about the problems. But you set a positive tone first.

Of course another very important practice is praise and recognition. If there’s one thing I hear again and again when I come into any company, it’s people saying, “You know what? When I’m doing a great job, nobody notices. But as soon as I make a mistake, boom, the hammer drops.”

Does your title, Happy Hour is 9 to 5, put off some people who ought to read this book because they think you’re just talking about drunkenness and revelry?

AK: I’m actually trying to play off that. Instead of having a horrible job and as soon as you get off, you rush to the nearest bar for happy hour, what if we could make the hours at work as happy without the alcohol? It is deliberate. I hope nobody actually thinks that I’m advocating alcohol at work.

Who is responsible for happiness?

AK: We are. I am responsible for my happiness at work. There are many things that influence my happiness at work. My coworkers influence it. My boss influences it. Top leadership influences it. But the ultimate responsibility is mine and nobody else’s.

But a lot of people, such as those who require very tight job descriptions, will say, “It’s my boss’s responsibility to make me happy at work.”

AK: Yes. That could never work. Try leaning back in your office chair and saying, “Hey, I’m not happy. Boss, come do something about it. Come make me happy.” Obviously, that can never work. At work and in life, if you want to be happy, you need to take charge yourself. You need to take responsibility. As long as you’re just sitting there as a passive victim of your own unhappiness, waiting for somebody else to fix it, nothing is ever going to happen.

However—and this is very important—this does not absolve managers of responsibility. The way I see it, the manager has a responsibility to set tone, to create an atmosphere, to create a setting where it’s easy to be happy at work. But ultimately, whether or not I’m happy at work is still my responsibility.

You have a few examples of companies setting the tone. One company puts a plush elephant at the desk of someone who did something good. When somebody sees the elephant at a coworker’s desk they ask, “What’s that all about?” So it reinforces the positive by inspiring the continued storytelling of the positive action. There are things that any company can institute to create this scenario, right?

AK: Absolutely. In my opinion, a manager’s first responsibility around happiness at work is to be happy him- or herself. Happiness at work is contagious. In fact, it’s highly contagious. If a manager is unhappy, the people will be too. There’s no doubt about it.

Managers’ moods have an inordinate effect on the people around them, particularly in the workplace. What about people who legitimately don’t know if they’re happy or not?

AK: If you’re not really sure, it’s because you haven’t had time to connect with yourself and find out. Because if you stop for a moment and think about it, you do know whether you’re happy or not. The thing is, many of us are so busy at work that we never have time to stop. We’re always working, thinking, talking, meeting, emailing, whatever.

A very simple exercise I teach people in my presentations is to, every single day, take five minutes and go somewhere where you won’t be interrupted. Sit down, turn off your phone, and ask yourself, “How am I feeling today?”

That takes us back to Epicurus and taking the time to think. In the HBR study, hundreds of people in different industries and in different companies had to take a few minutes at the end of each day to write in journals what they had liked about their day. Maybe part of their satisfaction was just taking the time to do that.

AK: Exactly. That’s a great point; you can’t really measure something without affecting it. Martin Seligman did a big study where he tested some ways to make yourself happy. One of the most efficient ways was very, very simple. For a week, sit down at the end of every day and write down three things that made you happy that day. It takes five minutes tops. No matter how bad your day was, I’m sure there were some good things in it. So just before you leave work, write down three things that made you happy at work that day. This has been proven to make people happier, not just while they do it, but also for a three month period after they’d done the exercise for a week.

You have that afterglow effect because you’ve been conditioned to think about the positive things.

AK: Precisely.

That’s the problem with us. We have to work hard to think about the positive. The negative comes so easily.

AK: Exactly. It’s an evolutionary thing. From that perspective, it’s been an advantage to see the negative first. If there’s a beautiful rose bush on your left and a tiger on your right, you kind of want to see the tiger first. It’s good for your survival. But these days there are more rose bushes and less tigers.

When you do consulting work for a company, how do you help them?

AK: I’m typically brought in due to dissatisfaction or stress. I’ve just been working with an insurance company here in Denmark that’s been extremely busy. We’ve had severe weather recently, some floods and thunderstorms. Every time there’s a flood or a thunderstorm, people who were flooded start calling the insurance company in droves. I worked with the insurance company for weeks to teach them to be happy at work even when they’re busy. I also work with a lot of merging companies. Two companies with different cultures becoming merged often leads to unhappiness. Recently, there’s been a huge wave of mergers in Denmark in the public sector where a lot of municipalities are being merged for efficiency. This is making a lot of people very unhappy at work and causing a lot of stress.

So you go in and teach them exercises to focus on the positive?

AK: Yes. I teach people two things. My theory is that there are only two things that make people happy at work: results and relationships. When people get results at work, when they make a difference, when they can use their strengths every day, they’re happy at work. And when they like the people they work with and when the people they work with like them, they’re happy at work.

People don’t know each other at work very well unless they make a concerted effort to find out about the other person.

AK: Exactly. One thing I tell people is to ask one of their coworkers about the best vacation he’s ever been on or about his favorite movie, his favorite book, his favorite album. Get people to talk about something they like and you can make a positive connection. And this is going to sound very banal, but another thing I teach people is to say, “Good morning.”

You mentioned another company where, whenever a person came in, in the morning, they had to go around and shake everyone else’s hand.

AK: Yes. It was that, whenever you walked into somebody else’s office, before 10:00am, you had to shake his hand.

That seems nice. I think the human contact component makes a big difference for people.

AK: It does. When you’re actually shaking hands with people, you’re present. You’re not just saying, “Good morning,” and thinking about your meeting.

You’re more likely to look them right in the eye as you’re doing that.

AK: Yes.

Who is acting on the information in this book?

AK: A lot of people. I get emails and blog comments from people all over the world who have read the book or read the blog. One of my favorite blog comments was from a lady in Hong Kong who finally quit her very unhappy job because of something she read on my blog.


AK: Yes. I also had a very interesting experience. I was in a meeting in Copenhagen with a consulting company and a freelance consultant they’d hired. The freelancer asked, “So, Alex, what do you do?” I explained, “I’m the Chief Happiness Officer.” “You’re the Chief Happiness Officer? I quit my job and became a consultant because of your blog.”

That’s great.

AK: That was amazing.

Speaking of your blog, I noticed a post a few days ago about somebody hating you. Can you tell me about that?

AK: That was an editorial in one of Denmark’s largest and most serious newspapers. I’d been quoted in an article in the same newspaper that day saying something about happiness at work. Apparently the columnist wasn’t impressed. He started the editorial by saying, “There are some things in the business world you just can’t take seriously. And Chief Happiness Officer has to be the most ridiculous title of the year.”

At first I was little surprised and a little sad. But then I remembered that if you want people to become passionate about a topic, you have to formulate your message in a way that makes people passionate. Passion runs in both directions. Some people will love you; some people will hate you. It’s fine. The alternative would be to say your message in such a way that nobody could ever be offended by it. But this will also mean that it would become so bland and boring, that nobody could ever be passionate about it.

So it’s a red letter day for you. You’ve gotten your first massively negative amount of feedback.

AK: In a national newspaper, no less.

Has there been any response?

AK: Not in the press, just a massive swell of support on my blog, people saying, “Don’t listen to him.”

That’s nice. Why are Scandinavians so happy at work?

AK: That’s a great question. It’s because we have a long-standing tradition in the Scandinavian countries of focusing on happiness at work. We’ve been doing this for 30 years, whereas other countries are just coming around to it now. This is most clearly evidenced by the fact that we have a word for it, arbejdsglæde. It’s not a particularly fancy word; it just means “work happiness.” That word actually exists in only the Scandinavian languages—Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Swedish. That’s it. As far as I know, it’s not in any other language on Earth. It’s not in English, French, Spanish, Russian, or Japanese. I’ve checked. In Japan, they have karoshi which means “death by overwork.”

Exactly what one should avoid.

AK: A lot of the famous Scandinavian companies like IKEA, Volvo, Carlsberg, and Lego have a longstanding tradition of focusing on whether or not people are happy at work. It’s not something that’s been done recently just because it’s fancy or a new concept. It’s something they’ve been doing for decades. It’s something that really permeates Scandinavian business culture. This is also, in my opinion, one of the reasons why Scandinavian workers are some of the most efficient in the world. I just saw a study showing that Norwegian workers are far more efficient than American workers, for instance.

Go Norway! But they have that whole socialist structure, so Americans will never take them seriously because they don’t think that it’s a very competitive culture.

AK: I can see that. But on the other hand, the Danish economy is one of the strongest in Europe. It has been for a decade now. It’s certainly a stronger economy than the U.S. economy currently, if I may say so.

I think that’s fair to say. [Laughter]

AK: So the truth is in the numbers, really. This is interesting because Denmark has very few natural resources. It’s not like we get rich from our oil or steel. We get rich in the modern business of innovation and design.

That’s a good point.

AK: A Dutch sociologist named Geert Hofstede did a study looking at what characterizes business culture in different countries. He has five different parameters. I won’t go into great detail about this but basically the Scandinavian work culture is characterized by specific values on these five parameters. In his opinion, it is the work culture of the future. In a climate where you need to be innovative, you need to have these strengths.

Sure. You can’t have any kind of business discussion these days without it boiling down to innovation.

AK: Exactly. There you have it. In the opinion of Hofstede, the Scandinavian work culture is the best at doing that kind of thing.

Thank you, Alex, it’s been fun talking with you.

AK: It was absolutely my pleasure, Erik.

Website/Blog: PositiveSharing.com

Book: Happy Hour is 9 to 5: How to Love Your Job, Love Your Life, and Kick Butt at Work

Email: alexander {at} kjerulf.com